Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
A novel idea: faith provides theme for mystery writers
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the June 14, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Father Timothy Radcliffe is the famous English Dominican who, as Master of the Order, traveled the world for a period of around eight years. He has written a new religious book that includes his powerful experiences during that time as Master of the Order and the richness of his education at Oxford and Paris. The new book is What is the Point of Being a Christian?, published by Burns and Oates – A Continuum Imprint (2006), now in softcover.
I read Father Radcliffe’s book slowly for spiritual reading over a period of six months or so. If you asked me to explain each chapter after I had read it, I probably could not clearly do so. However, with all of his historical, literary, and true-life examples, What is the Point of Being a Christian? is a treasure of stories and sections for prayer and reflection.
Father Radcliffe is placing before us hopeful writings of why, in the midst of secular world filled with doubt, there is much room for the mystery of Christ in our lives. And the doubt and woundedness of our time can be helpful in bringing us to the need for the living Christ, who died and rose that we might live.
In two chapters near the end of the book, Father Radcliffe directly takes on the divisions within the Catholic Church and how they might be bridged. He writes, “Who will be attracted to a Church in which people devote so much energy to being aggressive about other members? We have seen that anger can be fruitful, one of hope’s beautiful daughters, as Augustine asserted. But anger can also be merely destructive.”
Father Radcliffe makes a distinction between Kingdom Catholics, who see the Church as primarily the People of God on pilgrimage toward the Kingdom, and Communion Catholics, who see us as primarily members of the institution of the Church, the communion of believers. In his bridge-building chapters, he agues that as Roman Catholics, we need both sorts of identity. He also so states that the tension between them can be both fruitful and dynamic.
My favorite quotation from the book is from Thomas Merton, written when he came down from the Kentucky monastery into the village near it for the first time in many years. Merton wrote, “There is no way of telling people they are walking around shining like the sun ... There are no strangers ... If only we could see each other as we really are all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other ... the gate of heaven is everywhere.”
Father Radcliffe is realistic in his writings, but also is filled with hope. What is the Point of Being a Christian? is a life-giving book for a difficult time. It may even be part of the healing and reconciliation for which we all long.
Any mystery lover will find a new small book by Peter C. Erb a fascinating exploration of the post-1980 mysteries and the theological questions they raise. The book, by scm press (distributed in the United States by Presbyterian Publishing of Louisville, Ky.) is titled Murder, Manners, Mystery. It is 150 pages and retails for $19.99.
The book is based on an annual John Albert Hall lecture given at British Columbia’s University of Victoria.
The book is an investigation of the religious themes of modern mystery writers, including P. D. James, Colin Dexter, Ian Peters, Ruth Rendell, and the American Catholic James Lee Burke.
Most of the book is a study of the novels of P.D. James. So it would help a great deal if the reader has read the novels of James or has an interest in reading them down the road. I’ve only read two of James’s novels but I was still able follow most of Erb’s arguments.
His basic theme is a question: In a secular post-Christian world, what provides the ethical foundation for a mystery that is so heavily based on right and wrong, free will, and a notion of God?
Erb contrasts the more open-ended theological thoughts founded on Christian belief that are available in the novels of P.D. James with the more religious nostalgia of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, where Morse, for example, loves to listen to old hymns but doesn’t believe anymore.
In fact, in James, unbelief sometimes leads to belief. In her Death in Holy Orders, “She remembered what Father Collins had once said in a sermon when she first came to St. Matthew’s: ‘If you find that you no longer believe, act as if you still do. If you feel that you can’t pray, go on saying the words.’ She knelt down on the hard floor supporting herself with her hands grasping the iron grille, and said the words with which she always began her private prayers: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak but the word and my soul shall be healed.’”
For Erb, the power of a good mystery is tied to our fears of our own death. The tradition of the solution of a mystery with all the loose ends tied up is helpful for the anxious person. Erb argues that P.D. James breaks the mold at times and lets thoughts of the characters on the mystery of a gracious God who died for us continue on in the mind of readers.
Murder, Manners, Mystery most likely requires a reader who is fascinated by the genre of the murder mystery, particularly in the British tradition. It is thoughtful and interesting. The footnotes are well worth keeping a bookmark in. There are some surprising gems to be found there.
(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)